Delivered at Ellijay, Georgia
Yesterday afternoon I did a memorial service for a man, a barely middle aged man, who succumbed to a nine year battle with lymphoma. The cause of death was officially a freak brain inflammation, but it was the cancer and the drugs associated with keeping it in remission that led to his rapid disintegration following some years of relative recovery.
Years, I was to learn from listening to the many friends and colleagues who came to share their memories of him, being a pioneer and innovator in the field of human factors in the telecommunications industry: inventing things that got patents, inventing ways of solving problems among employees that brought harmony, always with an eye to creativity and perfection. Always with wit and a love of life that made his lunch hours memorable and his social life rich and never dull. He loved movies, loved fine dining, loved to tell awful puns, was a political liberal who risked alienating his more conservative BellSouth colleagues when he felt moved to criticize this administration, the state of the world.
From talking with his mother, who has now buried both of her adult children, his really was an American boyhood. He grew up in the Midwest, was a cub scout and a boy scout, who loved to camp and be in nature. He wasn’t much of an athlete but played chess and convinced his high school that there should be letters and jackets for academic “sports” as well. He had a snake and teased girls with it. He loved his single mom and made corny birthday cards for her.
He worked hard, put himself through college, wanted to be a biologist, then a psychologist.
Couldn’t handle the pain, though, of all of those patients he came in contact with in his first year working at a state mental hospital, so he switched to industrial psychology.
He was a logical, practical, diligent kid who also loved magic, and so while he ended up working in the world of cellular technology, he was equally, if not more so, a spiritual seeker. He moved from one religious community to another, as curious and challenging and driven to find inner meaning as he was to explore the outer reaches of cyber space.
He was, it came to me, a quintessential American Soul, at least as defined by Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University (where I did my first graduate work in theater) and the former director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. In his book The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, he took a new measure of the inner beliefs and spiritual sensibilities of what he calls the great iconic figures of American history: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, and Fredrick Douglas, and the enduring influence of America’s all but forgotten early mystical communities.
He was after timeless truths unfettered by all religious and philosophical dogma, taking us on, as historian Ken Burns has noted, an amazing spiritual journey to the heart of those complicated, interesting people who liked to call themselves American. More on this momentarily.
The genesis for this talk, this conversation, was not of course the unexpected, premature and tragic death this week of a former member of the congregation I currently serve, nor the occasion of having to conduct his funeral and celebration of life.
The inspiration — or rather the fodder — came from the responses by some other elected officials and pundits to the announcement by Keith Ellison, a new Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, and the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, that he would not take his oath of office on the Jewish/Christian bible but on the bible of Islam, the Koran. Critics argued that any holy book other than the traditional Bible was a sacrilege, folks like Virginia Representative Virgil Goode, who warned that unless immigration is tightened “many more Muslims” will be elected and follow Ellison’s lead. Ellison, by the way, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college.
Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host and columnist, responded on the air and in print that Ellison should not have been allowed to do so — not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because, according to Prager’s belief, the act undermined American civilization.
Prager wrote that it was an act of hubris that perfectly exemplified what he disdainfully calls multicultural activism — my culture trumps America’s culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters felt, Prager alleged, is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book. All that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.
Forgive me, Prager penned, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison’s favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, he continued, the Bible. It’s the way it has always been and the way it needs to be. So why are we allowing one man to do what no other member of Congress has ever done — choose his own most revered book for his oath?
This attack, echoed by numbers of others of the same ideology, sent journalists and historians running into the law books and archives to find out just exactly what the rules and regulations are about being sworn into public service, and what our past elected officials have used — or not used — in their initiation into the Halls of Congress.
Turns out, of course, that it is a ceremonial act, removed from the legal requirements of the oath of office. And while many of our past Presidents, for example, have taken the occasion to put their right hand on the Bible, even selecting certain passages, the actions of others, in fact some of our most famous others, are unknown. And others passed on it altogether, apparently without infamy.
George Washington did indeed get sworn in with a Masonic Bible — highly controversial at the time — and it was randomly opened to a passage from Genesis 49:13, which is the one about Jacob’s last words to his sons: “Zebulon shall settle at the shore of the sea; He shall be a haven for ships and his border shall be at Sidon,” which is at least worth a Ph.D. dissertation to unpack its relevance, if it had not been such a care-less, accidental selection.
We have no record at all of whether John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, or John Quincy Adams — founders all — swore their oath on a bible or if so, which verse. Unitarian President Franklin Pierce refused to swear an oath or kiss the Bible. Lincoln, his first time around, placed his hand on a closed Bible, as did John F. Kennedy. Richard Nixon insisted on being sworn in using two family bibles, both opened to Isaiah 2:4: “The haughty eyes of the people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in the day.”
Bill Clinton, interestingly, put his hand on a King James Bible, given him by his grandmother, open to, of all passages: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”
George W. Bush swore on a closed family Bible. We do not know, therefore, on which scripture he claimed or swore his American soul.
The controversy over being sworn in using a Koran seems to have evaporated, replaced by a dozen other hot stories and axes to grind. Even before the ceremony, the coverage had died down, and by the time Congressman Ellison put his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s personal Koran, an English translation of the Arabic, later sold to the congressional library to replace what had been burned by British troops during the War of 1812.
Ellison told reporters that he wanted his swearing in to be a special day and using Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy, the version librarians believe shaped Europe’s understanding of the Muslim Bible, made it even more special because Jefferson’s Koran dates religious tolerance to the founders of this country.
So the delicious, revealing irony has mostly been missed. That the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, whose religious affections were undeniably Deist and Unitarian, who had little use for most of the Bible at all and cut it down to a small shell of its original, calling it the Jefferson Bible, owned a Koran, and considered it instructive to his own spiritual affection.
Ironic and delicious because when the conservative myth of what makes for an American religious sensibility and an American soul does not hold true: swearing oaths on a single holy book.
So if not this simplistic vision, what do we know — really — about the American Soul?
There was a forum held back in September, 2003, in Faneuil Hall, that famous meeting place of revolutionaries in Boston, called “Reawakening the American Soul,” a forum put together in celebration, not of our political founders, the usual suspects, but of the life and work of Unitarian minister, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It featured three prominent writers and scholars, including Jacob Needleman.
The opening remarks by Richard Geldard recalled that Emerson was born just one month after President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, effectively doubling the size of our young country. As Ralph Waldo took his first steps, Merriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the wilderness, he said, and report its wonders to a curious nation. This foundation in wilderness, in proximity to nature, has as much to tell us about our American Soul — as the philosophies of John Locke or Calvinist guilt-ridden interpretation of biblical scripture.
When Emerson published his essay Nature in 1836, he described the essential American Soul: its distinctive character, which he understood, Professor Geldard said, to embody the need for physical, intellectual and spiritual freedom, a restless power, and a need for transcendence. Whose God is not the God of material providence and prosperity or harsh prosecutor and persecutor.
God in this New World expansive spirituality is Nature, is natural law, that which encompasses all, that which makes us aware at once of our individual dignity and worth as part of creation and yet, only that, part of something so much more significant and powerful than our desires and our egos. It is a deeply mystic sensibility.
It is a noble and liberating vision of America and its essence, its character, its soul.
It took a foreigner, a friend and colleague of Jacob Needleman, to rouse him from his despair in the summer of 1974 when the Vietnam War was tearing the country apart as surely as the war in Iraq is doing so today. The image of America’s invincibility, Needleman writes, and goodness was crashing down around us.
As the young student Needleman and 15 or so of his fellow students were railing not only against the morass in Southeast Asia and our loss of standing in the world but the whole structure of its government, institutions, and laws — a British diplomat who was visiting this country — stopped the cynical and despairing conversation by stopping one husky, bearded young man who had just been speaking about the crimes of America. What he said to the young man and of course to all of those present was only this:
You simply don’t know what you have here. You simply don’t know what you have.
What was it that this Brit understood and appreciated about, even revered in America?
Needleman embarked on a journey of study and reflection on those icons we remember now so dimly, with such skeptical distance, and discovered as a progressive and a religious liberal a treasure trove of insight and wisdom, even prophetic splendor.
From George Washington, whose birthday we celebrate on President’s three day sale weekend next month, he learned about the virtue and value of what he calls serene will, whose physical and emotional strength was truly legendary, a demi-God in the best sense of the word who was grounded in the principles of conscience, the cultivation of compassion, self-respect and what can be called inner collected-ness.
“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” he said, a commitment in other words to self-examination and self-improvement, of working intentionally and methodically on one’s faults.
Not self-improvement for material gain, unless a free republic be that gain, but for spiritual growth and interior clarity.
As for his notion of formal religion, in his farewell address, Washington inserted a comment on the role of religion in the political and economic life of the nation. He said that there can be no democracy or social survival when the social order is based only on the “material” self-interest of the parts or the individual. No authentic human life rooted only in the motives of personal gain. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, he said, religion and morality are indispensable supports.
At the same time, no religion or religious faith can be imposed on or demanded of people.
This is the mystery of the American nation, Jacob Needleman learned from our first President and inarguable founder. This is the paradox that has nourished, he writes, much of what has been alive in America for more than two hundred years. There must be religion (or its intense inner equivalent) and there must be no imposition — physical, economic, or psychological — to compel individuals to open their lives to the sacred.
There must be a sense of God — though not the gendered judgmental God of one aspect of a single religious text — and at the same time there must be the freedom to accept or reject God.
Washington and those who shared his perspective at the founding of this nation, did not think of religious symbols and practices as ends in themselves, we are told, but as instruments leading toward an inner human condition, a condition they believed that certain individuals might strive for with great intensity under forms not explicitly bound to conventional religious language or rituals.
Needleman has discovered for himself — through careful reading of the lives and letters and text by and about our Founding Fathers, for men they were, Jefferson included and Franklin — that the idea of freedom of religion opens up in ways, he writes, that are not usually what is thought. Freedom of religion means not only the liberty to practice whatever religion one chooses, which, contemporary conservative pundit opinion making aside, indeed was their deep conviction. It also means, he tells us, that genuine freedom must, freely and naturally, lead toward and be based on the religious dimension.
A religion that is not freely chosen is not religion, he is convinced, and freedom that is not in the deepest sense religious, is not freedom.
Only by working to create a depthful interior life, one that helps us to examine our attachments, entanglements, and inner slavery, Washington believed that we might know the meanings of independence, liberty, and strength for the nation.
Observe good faith and justice toward all nations, he said in his farewell address, cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation, to give to humankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.
This is indeed what we might yet have here. This indeed is what we might know as the American soul.
May it be so.